Female Public Servants on TV Increase Political Participation, Study Finds

Kerry Washington in SCANDAL, Tea Leoni in MADAM SECRETARY and Julianna Marguiles in THE GOOD WIFE-Publicity Stills-Split-Photofest-H 2019
ABC/Photofest; CBS/Photofest (2)

The period between 2014 and 2016 proved to be something of a golden era for female-led political dramas on television: Scandal, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife, State of Affairs and Veep all starred women shaking things up in Washington at a time when female employees in the U.S. administration weren't so rare as they are now. Even on male-led shows House of Cards and Designated Survivor, female lawmakers pushed policy and rose to prominence in Hollywood's gloss on Washington.

Given the relative dearth of women in powerful public-servant roles on TV before this period (Geena Davis' President Mackenzie Allen being a notable exception), did these characters help inspire viewers to engage in the political system? Two researchers who have recently published a paper on the subject are answering in the affirmative.

In a new study of frequent viewers of three female-led political dramas — ABC's Scandal and CBS' Madam Secretary and The Good Wife — Purdue political communications assistant professor Jennifer Hoewe and University of Alabama communications and information sciences PhD candidate Lindsey Sherrill argue that "the influence of political dramas, particularly those featuring women in lead roles, can lead to increases in political engagement." The research, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, builds on previous studies that suggests depictions in entertainment can humanize presidents and influence support for select public policies, while a multiplicity of portrayals has been linked to increased tolerance for working women and minorities.

Based on these previous findings and others, the authors hypothesized that viewing political dramas with lead female characters would "transport" viewers and make them feel parasocial, or one-sided, emotionally engaged relationships, with the characters. These feelings, they further guessed, would lead viewers to feel more "political self-efficacy," or that they could individually effect political change, and would increase political interest, both of which would ultimately persuade viewers to participate more politically. (Political participation was defined as attendance at a political meeting, rally or speech; circulating petitions for candidates or issues and/or contacting a politician or political party.)

To test their hypotheses, the authors recruited dedicated viewers of the three female-led political dramas. "We were really interested in these three shows in particular because they're different than a lot of other content that we see on American television right now in that they show women in political TV shows in positions of leadership," Hoewe, who is also a big Madam Secretary fan, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We were curious to see if those shows could have any kind of impact on the people who watch them." (HBO's Veep wasn't chosen, Hoewe explained to THR, because it was a comedy, which produces different feelings in viewers.)

The authors asked viewers on show-specific subreddits and fan forums to complete a set of survey questions designed to test how the shows had inspired them politically. Participants responded to questions about each of the study's variables (transportation, parasocial relationships, political interest, political self-efficacy and political participation) in order. The respondents, 218 in all, ended up being majority female and white: 71 percent said they were women and 81 percent reported being White/Caucasian. 

The results, the authors writes, proved all hypotheses except their guess that viewers' increased feelings of political self-efficacy would lead them to participate more politically: Political dramas featuring female leads did transport viewers and produce parasocial relationships that increased feelings of political self-efficacy and political interest. Political interest then increased political participation. "Taken together, these results indicate that the influence of political dramas, particularly those featuring women in lead roles, can lead to increases in political engagement through the transportation experienced and the parasocial relationships formed while watching these shows," the authors wrote.

Limitations of the study, the authors noted, included that only traditional methods of "political participation" counted, not activities one can partake in exclusively online. Further, participants of the study weren't as diverse as they could have been; the study authors suggest that men, for instance, may not have been equally represented in the study because they were not these shows' primary audience.

Hoewe is also curious about how male leads inspire political feelings in relation to the feelings female leads produced: "I'm actually working on a different study now where we're going to compare political dramas with female leads to those with male leads, to see if those elicit similar effects," she says.

Still, Hoewe says the study includes an important message for Hollywood creators: "Shows like these that feature women in strong positions, we're seeing through this research that they're beneficial for viewers," she says. "They're beneficial in terms of seeing representation, to see a person who looks like me, potentially, but also in terms of understanding that people of all different genders, races, ethnicities, religions, can be in positions of political leadership, and sometimes it takes seeing that happen for us to understand that it can be a reality."